As it turned out, the task did take some preparation, which allowed John his own personal time. He stood on one of the many inner balconies of Atlantis, watching the activity below him. It was odd, watching these people go on about daily business while he waited to see if a friend would die. It seemed wrong. All of Atlantis should be at attention, except that it would be the last thing that Rodney would want, and quite frankly, it was the last thing he himself wanted. He just felt people should know, or something. Of course they probably did, to some extent, it was becoming harder and harder to keep a secret in the city from reaching from one metallic rimmed bay to the other, and this was Rodney, after all. Head geek. Of course people knew what was going on. So if they did know, why didn't they look concerned?
And, yet again, here he was, having to play the waiting game when it came down to his friend's health. That in itself was becoming tiresome. Aliens, viruses, personal shields, more aliens, Wraith, aliens . . . hell, he knew the job would be risky. But he'd had no idea how many days would be spent with a knot in his gut as his friends battled for their lives, or tubes up his own nose as he battled for his own. Rodney had threatened him with bodily harm more times than he cared to count if he were to end up in the infirmary, which of course led to the circular argument that if Rodney injured him, he would end up in the infirmary anyway. Which would lead to Rodney's grunt of agreement, and another threat, such as a mustache and body hair on his Johnny Cash poster. Pink laces in his boots. The Rodney glare 24/7.
What he wouldn't do to see that glare now.
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, and knew who it was without having to turn. "It's time, huh?"
"Yes." Elizabeth's voice was as gentle as her touch, and she didn't remove her hand. "Carson asked for you. He thinks if you're there, you'll help . . ." her voice faded.
"Help what? Anchor him? Keep him on his side of death?"
"Yes." Her voice was stronger this time, and adamant.
"Must be my charming bedside manner."
"Actually, I think it was a reference to you being his closest friend."
That did he. He choked, and hated himself for it. "Yeah. What the hell. Like he said, we seem to make a habit of saving each other's lives." John pushed away from the rail. He was well aware that Elizabeth's hand never left his shoulder until they reached the infirmary.
They walked over to Teyla's bed. She was still too small, pale, fragile. Her breathing was steady, but everything about her looked close to death. Nurse Rainey looked up and gave them an encouraging smile, though small, but it was enough.
Elizabeth gave his arm a squeeze. "I'll be outside."
John turned quickly. He had thought she would stay. He almost needed her to stay. Instead he walked alone to Rodney's bed.
Rodney was tubed up, strapped down, and looked worse than Frankenstein's monster. John's gaze drifted over the bedridden man nervously. He winced and looked at Carson. "You sure about this?"
The doctor was fidgeting with a machine John hadn't seen before. "As certain as I can be under the circumstances." He allowed a moment of doubt to creep in as his hands feel helplessly by his sides. "Physically I can probably control things from here. It is the psychological impact I'm worried about."
"Shouldn't Kate be here?"
"I don't want a lot of people crowding the area. She'll be right outside, with Elizabeth and Ronon. I've asked Malachi to join us, he's outside as well. But I wanted to talk with you in private before I brought him in." Carson disappeared for a moment, and returned with a sheet of paper on which he had scribbled down a few hasty sentences. He hesitated, then slowly handed the paper to John. "This is something you should hold on to. It's Rodney's last request."
John paled. "Carson . . ."
"I don't want it!"
"There is a risk. A great risk. This is something he mentioned a while back. He first brought it up after that whole nanovirus affair, and after Grodin's death . . .well, he wanted you to have it." Carson gave the paper a final glance and pressed it into John's hand. "But don't look at it. Not yet."
John took the paper almost with a measure of distaste. He wanted to crumple it, throw it away as useless, but he knew better. "I wouldn't dream of it, Doc."
"Then let's get started." Carson took a deep breath, and pointed to the chair beside the bed. "I'll go and fetch Malachi."
John carefully refolded the paper and stuck it in his back pocket. He swallowed and sat in the chair to Rodney's left, facing his head, taking in all of the wires that surrounded his friend. A steady beep sounded in his right ear, and he turned in irritation. On the other hand, that beep said clearly that everything was all right, for the moment. John watched Rodney's chest rise and fall beneath the blanket. He reached out hesitantly and placed his hand there, watching it rise and fall with the rhythm of breathing, feeling the heartbeat, feeling the warmth. Feeling the life, and willing it to stay.
He jerked his hand away as Malachi entered, looking forlorn and serious. He gave John a single nod, and took his place just to the right of the foot of the bed.
Carson inhaled deeply, and let his breath out slowly. Once he was ready, he said, "I'm going to administer the drug through the IV. It'll slow his breathing, his heartbeat, everything. I will continue to administer the drug until he reaches a point . . ." he said nothing else, as Malachi raised his hand to stop him.
"I understand," he said solemnly. The hand lowered. "Before you start, I wish to do something."
Carson looked puzzled. "Of course."
Malachi gave a nod and walked over to the edge of the bed, across from John. He leaned over Rodney and made a sign over his chest, then folded his hands as he spoke.
"You have been most brave, Rodney McKay. I hope to ease your burden, and that of the spirit that resides within you. I give you cleansing and good health. I grant you freedom. And should our paths never again cross, I give you strength and love, and grace go with you on your journey." He leaned over, his hand on Rodney's chest, and muttered a few sentences under his breath, a language John had never heard before. Malachi stepped back, returned to his chair, and gave John a pointed look that clearly said, 'Your turn'.
John had no intention of saying goodbye. Not yet. "Carson, just how long is this going to take?"
"I don't know lad, I've never done anything like this before."
"I mean, how long can you safely keep him under?"
"I wouldn't risk more than a couple of hours."
"So you're saying two?"
"Aye, if that."
John nodded and looked at his watch. Two hours to a new day. He glanced at Malachi, then gave his friend a fond look.
"See you on the flip side." He nodded at Carson, and the doctor administered the drug.
He had only on nerve left, and that damned mechanical beep was on it. Yet he was scared shitless that it would stop. John had been holding onto Rodney's cold hand for four hours. His body had aches in places that shouldn't have been deemed places, yet they were painfully and obviously there. His mind was numb with the worry that Rodney had yet to wake, had yet to even budge from his deep coma. All John knew to do was to sit and clutch his hand, rub his arm on occasion to stimulate blood flow, or sensation, or something. Whether that worked was beyond him, but he couldn't just sit there. He had already done that, talking to Rodney, then sitting in uncomfortable silence. Desperation was kicking in, and he didn't care who witnessed it.
Malachi was sitting across from him at Rodney's right. His eyes had been closed the whole time, and he swayed gently back and forth, muttering litanies underneath his breath that contributed nothing to John's emotional state of affairs. But hopefully it was contributing to Rodney's, so he kept his mouth shut.
Ronon kept peeking in irritably, then rejoining Teyla, who had yet to awaken.
Carson's face was lined with stress. His constant checking and rechecking of Rodney's vitals at least comforted John to some extent. But for the most part it was the worst waiting game he had ever played. If the beeps sounded too far apart for his liking, he started talking to Rodney, albeit a bit loudly, so never let it be said he was actually yelling at a dying man. The beeps would pick up, whether as a coincidence, or recognition, John couldn't say. And he didn't care. As long as those beeps kept going.
Hour six, and he wanted nothing more than to either stand or go to sleep.
Hour eight, and he was barking out medical orders like he knew what he was talking about.
Elizabeth was a ghost. He was certain she was there, yet he never actually saw her.
And it wasn't until hour ten that the beeps suddenly lengthened into one long electronic wail, that a breath released in a final hiss, that John jumped up and leapt out of Carson's way as he frantically fought for Rodney's life.
Malachi and John were both shoved aside. John turned frightened eyes to the man beside him, taking in the tense posture. So he was worried. For himself, or for Rodney? The way he wrung his hands annoyed him. His shifting his weight annoyed him. That damned chanting had annoyed him, everything about this man annoyed him. And underneath the stacks upon stacks of annoyance, he found a thread of surprising sympathy.
He had made a bad choice. They all did things like that, acting with good intentions and screwing up in the end. Malachi had been coping with this on his own. John at least had a team to support him, counsel him, correct him. Malachi had nothing but a village to care for, and a haunting he couldn't escape. Other than Sanara, who was nice but not very helpful in such matters, he probably had no one to talk to.
John suddenly felt sorry for him.
Five minutes later Carson emerged with the news that Rodney was alive. He was weak, but his vitals were relatively strong. Not totally out of the woods yet, but better.
Malachi verified this with wide eyes. "He did it," the old man whispered. "I can't sense it. It's gone."
At that moment there was a faint sound behind the curtain. John pushed past Carson and flung open the privacy curtain. Rodney was there, lying utterly still, but there was movement behind those lids, and his chest filled with a moan.
"Rodney!" John smiled before he could stop himself. He leaned over the bed. "Hey buddy, it's over. It's all over, you can wake up now. You did it."
Rodney's chest heaved with deepening breaths. A finger curled, and John found himself carefully taking hold of it, watching with curiosity as it curled inside his hand like a child looking for reassurance. Eyes opened slowly, slits of blue in a white face.
John's own breath caught. He waited until Rodney blinked a few times. "You with us?" he asked cautiously.
Rodney blinked lazily, painfully. It seemed to take forever for him to turn his head. "Hey," he whispered, and his eyes closed again, this time in exhausted sleep.
He slept for two days. Carson insisted that it was normal, but John hovered outside the door whenever his duties freed him up for a moment or two. Malachi was under guard in guest quarters, not allowed to leave until they knew for certain that Rodney was fine. He ignored the man's insistence that the entity was gone.
On day three, Rodney was allowed visitors. It was the first time he was able to speak coherently, and his voice was low and tired. Malachi pushed the others aside eagerly and leaned over the exhausted man, waving away the anger directed at him. "Did it work?" he insisted. "What did it tell you?"
"Do you mind?" John asked.
But again Malachi waved him away and leaned in closer, his hands planted to either side of Rodney's body, his face filled with anxiety. "What did it tell you?"
Rodney's breath quickened for a moment. He frowned lightly. "Nothing."
Malachi shook his head vigorously and he gripped the sheet. "No, no, it had to say something. What did it say?"
Rodney licked his lips a few times, then met Malachi's pointed stare, right above his face. "You really want to know?"
John was shocked at the anger in Rodney's voice. "Look, that's enough," he said, and pulled Malachi away.
Rodney looked at John as though seeing him for the first time. "Hey. You're here."
John's mouth quirked.
Malachi yanked his arm away from John's grip. "I must know what happened. You don't understand."
"Later," John said firmly, "when he's rested a bit more."
"No." Rodney's head lolled on the pillow, and he swallowed. "Now." Bright eyes turned to Malachi. "I know you are responsible for it. I don't know how. I know it wanted to die."
Malachi nodded eagerly. "Yes, yes, and you did this? It no longer suffers?"
"No. It isn't suffering."
Malachi straightened, and smiled, his whole body folding in relief. He turned to pat John on the back. He stopped at Rodney's voice. "I'm not finished."
Malachi turned back, confused. "How so?"
"I said it doesn't suffer. I didn't say it was gone."
John leaned in, shouldering Malachi aside, anger fighting with disbelief. "Wait a minute. You mean it's still in you?"
"No," Rodney replied slowly, and with a little of his former edge, "it isn't still in me. But it's still alive." He took a moment to gather his thoughts, and returned his attention to Malachi. "You created a monster, quite literally." He took a breath, and continued. "I don't know what happened. We didn't really communicate, not like you and I understand it."
"I know of this communication," Malachi interjected.
"I know you do," Rodney said irritably, "I was saying it for his benefit." He looked at John, who signaled for him to continue. "The entity, for lack of a better word, has decided that it enjoys what it's doing. It likes the killing." His eyes were sad. "It wants to continue. But it left me alone."
"Why?" John asked quietly.
Rodney gave a small, one shouldered shrug. He was tiring, his speech was strained. "I suppose because I made it realize its true nature. It won't bother me anymore. It's moved on. This is what the entity has decided. I had no way to change that, much less destroy it."
"So it'll keep on killing," John said.
"Yes." Rodney closed his eyes. "But I won't know about it. That'll be the problem of some other poor soul."
Malachi had slowly backed to the edge of the curtain during the conversation.
"It's already selected the next bouncer."
Teyla was sitting in a wheelchair, looking out over the water. She wasn't yet allowed to go into the air. She had to make do with the sight through a window, and it was killing her. "I would like some fresh air," she moaned.
It was a dejected sound, and Rodney wasn't used to hearing that tone from her. But he understood. "I'd wheel you out there, but that might land me in the infirmary again, and I've spent enough time there. If I believed in karma I would say I'm not willing to risk any more unpleasantness by upsetting the status quo." He stood beside her, his hands tucked into the pockets of his grey pants.
"I am glad you're here. I was afraid that after what happened . . ."
"Oh, I considered avoiding you. But then I figured that once we are on an off-world mission and my karma kicks in, I'll need you at my back." He waved away her smile. "Don't think this is for your benefit. Self preservation only."
"Which is why you made a special trip to speak with me."
"I'm just sealing the pact. I shoot you, you forgive me. That sort of thing."
He really didn't know what to say to her, and that was fine as far as she was concerned. Just the fact that he was standing there close to her, casually, not fidgeting nor moving away, spoke volumes that had no need to be expressed. "And how are you feeling?" she asked him.
"Oh, you know. Half the stuff in this city is breaking down, so who has to go play superhero?" He pointed to himself. "Really is a wonder they were able to function without me all this time."
She would have laughed, but it hurt her chest. "I sure they appreciate everything you do. Everyone was quite worried."
"Really?" He seemed genuinely surprised, and covered it. "Well, of course they were. After Zelenka, Kavanaugh runs the show, and who the hell wants that?"
"Zelenka does not appear to have the same . . .karma . . .as you have, so the chances of Kavanaugh ever taking over . . ."
"Oh, and thanks for that, huh?" He sent her an acerbic look that meant nothing. His attention crept back to the water. "It is lovely, isn't it?" he said quietly, almost thoughtfully. "It's a shame that there are – things – out there that can't appreciate this."
"Everything appreciates beauty in its own way," Teyla said.
"And what is beautiful to one is a junk heap to another," a new voice said, and John walked into view. "You two having fun?"
"I would feel better were I not confined to this chair," Teyla mumbled.
"Uh-uh. No slinging sticks for six weeks or more. Take it easy for a change, huh?" John took the handles. "And Carson's ready for you."
Teyla sighed in resignation. "It seems I am to have your role for a while, Rodney."
"Oh, enough already! And don't go expecting me to get injured just to get you out of these checkups. I've had enough for several lifetimes, thank you."
"Don't you have work to do?" John chided.
Rodney cast him a withering look. He gave Teyla a more friendly one, and headed toward the labs.
Carson's exam was more thorough than Teyla cared for, but when it was over she was pleased to find she was healing rapidly. "You'll be walking about with no trouble in a day or so," Carson said happily, "only no working out for six weeks. I mean it, Teyla."
"I understand," Teyla responded, reluctantly.
"I'll keep an eye on her, Doc," John offered, and started to raise a lecturing finger toward her when Carson's comm sounded.
"Carson!" Rodney's voice was pained. "I need help down here!"
Carson frowned as he keyed his unit. "Rodney, what is it? Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not all right!" he screeched. "I think I broke my ankle! Damned alien stairs . . ."
Teyla laughed, even through the pain.
John entered Rodney's quarters that night to find the irate scientist sitting at his desk with his chin in his hand, staring at a book, one bandaged foot propped in a chair on a pillow.
"How goes the injury?" John walked over and made a motion of slapping his foot off the chair.
"Don't you do it!" Rodney jumped, and yelled at the sudden motion. "How it goes, is it hurts, okay! So don't mess with it! What are you doing?"
John had knelt down, and was studying the bandage. "Looks like the swelling is going down."
"What, are you a doctor now?"
"I have eyes, Rodney."
"Yes, I can put a little weight on it, which means I can get you out into the hall if need be, so play nice."
John continued to study the wrap. "Doesn't look much like a break to me."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "It's a sprain, okay? As you apparently well know, don't think I didn't see you in the doorway checking up on me." Rodney huffed and returned to his book. "Thanks, by the way."
"You're welcome." John looked around, but there wasn't another chair available, so he perched himself on the side of Rodney's desk. "What'cha reading?"
"Some convoluted theory on interdimensional travel."
"This wouldn't have anything to do with your little incident, would it?"
"I'd hardly call it little." Rodney sent him a withering glance.
"My conclusion is that I still have no idea what really happened to me, and I'm willing to keep it at that."
"Hence the book." John stood. "Well, I'll leave you to your reading, then."
"Good. Oh, and Colonel . . ." Rodney looked up suddenly. His glance fell sideways and was lost in discomfort.
John sucked on his inner cheek, taking in his friend's embarrassment, and nodded slowly. "See you for dinner? The usual time?"
Rodney managed a smile. "Table in the corner, by the window?"
"Gotcha." John snapped a smile at him, and walked out.
Rodney gave a small sigh of relief. Everything would be fine. It had to be. He returned to his reading with one eye on the clock, all the while wondering what the outcome of his little adventure had been.
And one other question nagged at him. Why him? Why all the others before him? Why hadn't the entity just taken . . . .
Large, white hands were prominent against a shadowed background as thick, calloused fingers reached for him, then wrapped around his throat. Sensations flashed by in frames: the damp earth at his back, the smell of rotting leaves, a sharp stick poking into his spine. The cold, paralyzing fear and chest ripping panic. A dry, closed throat. The bite of cold steel. He was partially enclosed in the jacket of the man leaning over him, the dangling fabric blotting out his surroundings, making him aware only of the attacker hovering over him, killing him.
He choked violently. He tried to scream as he clawed desperately at the hands. Images stabbed relentlessly at his mind, pictures much too vivid for reality, yet too startlingly clear for a dream.
He was caught. Trapped. And forced to feel the savagery over and over again, the tearing pain, of being forced onto his back and seeing the attacker, but not really seeing him. Feeling the knife at his throat, and the blood dripping down his face from repeated blows, experiencing the pure dread of what was to come. And the knowledge that he wouldn't survive.
Stale breath invaded his nostrils. He breathed out forcefully, wanting no part of this person to join with him, and yet there was no choice. A knee pressed him into the earth, his tender ribs cracking underneath the pressure. And then there was the laughter, and a look in eyes so fierce, he was certain he had been captured by a monster. His clothing was ripped and his chest flayed, peeling back layers of skin, revealing a person that was best hidden. And he could do nothing but scream, yet his screams held no words, no sounds, just senseless, empty echoes in the cold night air . . . .
Malachi was drenched in sweat, his body curled tightly around itself, his head throbbing . . . .